With the Benin bronzes, Germany is for the first time releasing a huge cultural treasure from colonial times for return. The valuable objects are to be returned to Nigeria.

«The Benin bronzes are coming home!» Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock summed up in one sentence on Friday what German museums and those responsible for them have prevented for decades.

In Berlin, Germany and Nigeria cleared the way for the return of art objects stolen during the colonial period. With a “joint declaration on the return of the Benin bronzes” on Friday in Berlin, a framework was created for how the property rights to the valuable pieces can be transferred from German museums to Nigeria.

“Unconditional return”

Baerbock, Minister of State for Culture Claudia Roth (both Green), Nigerian Minister of Culture Lai Mohammed and Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Zubairo Dada signed the four-page and twelve-point agreement, which provides for an “unconditional return”. At the same time, both sides want “that the German public museums and institutions can continue to exhibit the Benin bronzes as loans”.

Baerbock referred to the history of colonialism. “We must not forget that this is also part of German history,” she said. “It was wrong to take away the bronzes, it was wrong to keep them for 120 years.” This is a start to correct mistakes. At the same time, she referred to collaborations for exhibitions in the future. “The bronzes can go on holiday in German museums in the future.”

A new era

Roth spoke of a day of hope, humanity and friendship. “Germany is in the process of changing its blindness to its own colonial past,” she said. Now it is “forward to a future in which justice could heal the wounds of the past”. Roth spoke of a new era of cooperation between museums and those responsible. “Culture makes a common future possible.”

Nigeria’s Minister of Culture Lai Mohammed was “very happy that Germany is making this possible”. He also thanked the museums and the responsible sponsors. “Through these actions, Germany has taken the lead in correcting past mistakes.” At the same time, Benin bronzes could continue to be exhibited in Germany. “Agreements have already been made that these art treasures will also be on display in German museums in the future.”

Zubairo Dada, Nigeria’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, spoke of the “beginning of a new era in culture and diplomacy”. The move will have a positive impact on mutual understanding between both countries and cultures.

Hand over two bronzes directly

Two bronzes from Berlin holdings were handed over immediately afterwards. Around 1130 of the artistic pieces from the palace of the then Kingdom of Benin, which today belongs to Nigeria as the Edo State, can be found in around 20 German museums. The objects, mostly made of bronze but also of ivory and wood, date from the British looting of 1897.

After the Ethnological Museum in Berlin, the Linden Museum in Stuttgart, the Museum am Rothenbaum (Hamburg), the Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum (Cologne) and the Ethnographic Museum in Dresden/Leipzig have the most extensive collections. So far, these five houses have been involved in the planned transfer of ownership and have already taken steps to return the art objects.

The joint declaration recognizes the “great artistic, historical and current value of these artifacts” for the people of Nigeria “as well as their universal significance for humanity”. In addition, it is necessary “to achieve not only the return of the objects, but also a new understanding of cultural cooperation between Nigeria and Germany”.

Handover agreements are now to be signed between Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments and the German museums for the transfer of ownership, the “return of the objects to Nigeria from 2022” and provisions on loans and exhibitions. Both sides also want to support the construction of museum facilities in Benin City.

Parzinger sees a rethink

The President of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, Hermann Parzinger, sees a changed attitude towards returns. “I think there is a rethinking in our entire society, from politics to museums, no part of society is exempt,” said Parzinger in the ZDF “Morgenmagazin”. The 34 years of German colonial history were pushed aside and also overshadowed by the Holocaust and other catastrophes of the 20th century.

The debate about the Humboldt Forum in Berlin, where with the last partial opening on September 17, after consultation with Nigeria, Benin bronzes are also to be shown, made it increasingly clear that “this topic of our history has to be addressed, also in the schools, in all areas of public life,” he said.